Have you ever heard the word “urushi”? Urushi (lacquer) is natural paint made of sap extracted from lacquer trees. Wooden objects coated with lacquer are called lacquerware. The fact that in written English some people refer to lacquerware as “japan,” demonstrates lacquerware’s importance as one of Japan’s most treasured artifacts. Lacquerware “wajima-nuri” produced in Ishikawa Prefecture is well-known.
Born into a family of kijiya (craftspeople who construct the wooden bases) for wajima lacquerware, KIRIMOTO Taiichi, went on to study design at college after graduating from high school. Soon after entering college, Kirimoto was deeply moved by the words of a teacher he held in high regard: “designing is the act of enhancing the quality of people’s lives and making them feel more comfortable.”
Many people still believe that wajima lacquerware is a luxury item. During the bubble years (the economic bubble of late ‘80s Japan), pieces of makie (a technique for drawing a picture or a pattern in lacquer, sprinkling it with gold and silver powder and then polishing it) furniture that were worth over 10 million yen were sold one after another. “Such a situation is not going to last for long, so we should seize the day,” Kirimoto said to his father. But after his father advised him to devote himself to the work at hand, he instead focused on putting the business on a firm footing.
Before long, the bubble economy burst and orders for artistic lacquerware plunged. This prompted Kirimoto to start making lacquerware for everyday use as an “urushi design producer.” But in the traditional world of wajima lacquerware, the general practice is that nushiya (those who produce and sell lacquerware) take orders from customers first, and then pass on those orders to kijiya. Some of the nushiya weren’t pleased with Kirimoto’s innovative methods and stopped ordering wooden bases from him. Kirimoto, however, persisted in his belief that, “urushi can make life more comfortable and convenient.”
Some people say that lacquerware cannot hold hot food and is a pain to take care of. But as long as you don’t pour boiling hot soup into lacquerware or put it in a microwave, there is no problem. All you have to do to take care of lacquerware is wash it in cold or warm water using a sponge with mild detergent. After rinsing it, dry it with a towel. If you discover scratches on your lacquerware after repeated use, you can have it recoated.
One after another, Kirimoto has been coming up with pieces of lacquerware which go beyond the conventional wajima-nuri, including anti-scratch pasta plates, cell phone straps and business card holders. Under the brand name of Wajima Kirimoto, he opened a shop in Kanazawa in addition to the one in Wajima, and also established an online store. There are shops dealing in Kirimoto’s products throughout Japan, including well-established department stores in Tokyo.
In 2007, Kirimoto designed and supervised the production of a small hexagonal box (called Boîte Laquée Wajima) for Louis Vuitton. Further proof that Kirimoto’s products have been gaining a global reputation came when the chairman of a global entertainment company, who has a fondness for Japanese food, ordered a variety of anti-scratch lacquerware from the workshop.
“Since I’m doing things a bit differently, I sometimes find myself isolated within the production area of Wajima,” says Kirimoto. “But when customers embrace my product ideas, it makes me feel so happy and energized.” How can he combine the skills of craftsmen and create lacquerware that consumers will find “necessary in daily life?” Since hearing his mentor’s advice in college, this has been the key issue for Kirimoto.
Text: MATSUMOTO Seiya